Most of us are familiar with the main ingredients in beer: water, hops, yeast, and grain (usually barley). Each one of these ingredients are fascinating and complex on their own if you really dig into them. Hops are incredibly hard to grow. Yeast are particularly complex and finicky single cell organisms. Water chemistry can make the difference between a good beer and a great beer for a number of reasons. And grains. Grains are the ingredient that make me ask, “How did the ancient brewers ever figure this out?!” One cannot simply go out to their barley field, thresh a bunch of grains, and start brewing. The grains must first be malted in order to be useful to the brewer. Soda shops and malted milk balls have put malt in our common vernacular. We all have heard this term before, but how many of us really understand what it means? I certainly didn’t have a full understanding of the process myself before entering into this industry. I’ll save you the vocabulary words and the diagrams. Simply put, the maltster (that’s someone who makes malt) tricks the grain into growing. They give the seeds just enough air and water to make them start to grow, then they dry it out, and roast the grains to develop the flavor and color. This process allows the starches in the grains to break down into simpler sugars that can then be extracted by the brewer and fermented by the yeast. Skip the malting step, and all you have is seed water. Insert pouty face here.
Until just recently, the only people malting grains were behemoth companies that supplied behemoth breweries. Those companies still exist, but now we are seeing craft maltsters start to work with grains that are locally grown and supply local craft breweries and homebrewers. They are still few and far between, but we are fortunate to have Riverbend Malt House here in Asheville. What makes them exceptional is that they are working with North Carolina grown grains that other maltsters wouldn’t normally bother with. This is bolstering a post-tobacco farming community that has been weeded out of business and struggling to retool their farms to stay in business.
The work of malting is arduous. There is a lot of shoveling grains onto the malting floor, then into the kiln, then on to final packaging – usually tons at a time. It isn’t often considered “women’s work”, but just like every other part of the brewing industry, there are always a few. I spoke with Kim Thompson of Riverbend Malt about her role at the facility. “I’ll admit that I come from a spoiled perspective of women in this industry. Riverbend is not a dude-bro club. These guys are conscientious about what they are doing, and the way they treat their employees is amazing. Everyone I've come across has been generous and open. It seems to be a pretty laid back community of like-minded people who are all about shared passions and getting the job done. It may be just around the corner or perhaps I'm just reaping the benefits of the trailblazers that came before me. When I go to work, I know I’m going to work my ass off, laugh my ass off, and learn a hell of a lot, and that’s because of the guys that I work with. I can't take myself too seriously. I appreciate the differences, but so far, in everything I've chosen to do whether it's been unconventional or otherwise, being a woman has never been an advantage or a disadvantage for me. I follow my heart and my gut, I do it with drive and passion, and being a woman has never been an issue. I've actually never considered it or factored it into how I navigate life or chosen professions. ”
Because of the physical nature of the work, everyone at Riverbend moves around to different stations, so Kim is involved with each step of the process from raw grain to finished product. She says that she was prepared for the laborious nature of the job, but was floored (no pun intended) by the cerebral nature of it. “We’re working with a living organism,” she says. “Every day I go into the germination room, I smell the grains, feel them, and taste them to see where they are in the process. I’m a very tactile person, and this is my way of educating my senses. It gives me a deeper understanding and appreciation for the process.”
She points to her childhood and adolescence in Germany and Belgium as the roots for her two main passions: bread and beer. She knew that she wanted to be a part of the industries that make them happen, and working with the raw materials has given her that outlet. She also mills grain into flour for Carolina Ground, and artisanal stone mill in Asheville. “I like having a hand in the story that becomes something else. I enjoy doing things so that other people don’t have to them and knowing that what I do makes life easier for other people. Whether the consumer even thinks about malting barley or milling grain, it’s an important part of modern life. We all have no idea how many hands go into the thing that allows us to be in the world the way we are today.” She says she’s comfortable being the human equivalent to a blue screen: the thing that you can’t see, but it makes your experience richer. “Take our Riverbend Heritage Malt, for example. I malt that at Riverbend, then I grind it into flour at Carolina Ground. Then The French Broad Chocolate Lounge uses that flour to make pastries. The person that eats that cake isn’t thinking about the flour or the malted grains that it comes from. They’re simply enjoying dessert. I love having my hand in so many steps of the process that make that experience possible for people.”
I asked Kim if she has a favorite beer. “Well,” she said, “I tend to go through phases depending on seasons and what's available or being a total nerd and getting into pairing, but saisons or anything with funk are the styles that are most appealing to me.” And her favorite grain to work with? “Rye is beautiful. It’s so complex in flavor, and it has this rich mouthfeel. I want to mill some of our malted rye into flour and bake with it at home.”
So why didn’t Kim pursue a career in baking or brewing? “I like being a part of that process on my own at home, but just because you like to cook doesn’t mean you should be a chef. Besides, I like to do things that are [physically] hard to do. What we do isn’t easy, but that’s what makes it so beautiful.”